Dem Leaders Scheme to Scrap Health-Reform Conference Committee

Progressive activists have put a good deal of energy into preparing for
an anticipated House-Senate conference committee, in which the distinct
health-care reform bills enacted by the two chambers would be
reconciled. The theory has been that, in the conference process, it
might be possible to strengthen the especially weak language and
policies of the Senate bill.

But what if there is no conference committee? What if key players in
the House and Senate come up with a scheme that would allow them to
"work things out" among themselves without having to empower a
conference committee? What if they simply scrap the freewheeling and
potentially difficult to control negotiation over the character and
content of the final bill?

Then pressure from progressives could be without consequence, as all
authority would rest with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California;
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and a few of their closest
compatriots. And the insurance industry and other lobbying interests
that offer congressional Democrats the prospect of substantial 2010
election funding would only have to deal with House and Senate leaders
who are already thinking -- make that, already worrying -- about the fall and who have set themselves up as conduits for campaign cash.

Could such a scenario play out? Absolutely.

Indeed, every indication suggests that congressional Democratic leaders
are preparing either to go with a so-called "ping-pong" approach that
would have the House simply take up the Senate bill -- or, more likely,
to a strategy that would have differences between the two bills sorted
out at the leadership level and agree to a set of changes that would be
"packaged into a single amendment to the bill."

This is being pitched by some Democratic insiders -- and their allies
in the punditocracy -- as a tactic that would exclude Republicans from
the process. And there might be some appeal to getting the "party of
no" out of the way. But a scheme that excludes right-wingers who are
opposed to any change is also likely to exclude progressives who want
real change.

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona,
who has argued for using the conference process to strengthen the weak
Senate measure - by restoring a government-run public option as an
alternative to profiteering by private insurers, among other
initiatives - expressed frustration with the latest development in the
reform fight.

"I am disappointed that there will be no formal conference process by which various constituencies can impact the discussion," said Grijalva.
"I have not been approached about my concerns with the Senate bill, and
I will be raising those at the Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday. I
and other progressives saw a conference as a means to improve the bill
and have a real debate, and now with this behind-the-scenes approach,
we're concerned even more."

Grijalva concern about the closing down of the process is appropriate.

Who says?

Harry Reid.

In 2006, when Republicans controlled both chambers of the Congress, they employed a "manager's amendment" scheme that, in the words of The Hill newspaper
sought to "go around the formal conference committee and instead use
closed-door negotiations to work out the differences between the House
and Senate legislation."

Reid objected, declaring that: "Sometimes Democrats complain and
sometimes Republicans complain -- whoever is in the minority here.
Well, we didn't get enough consultation; you cut us out of the process.
But at least you had a group of Democrats and Republicans in the
process. Here, you have one person making a decision as to what is
going to be in the managers' amendment."

Reid was right then.

He's wrong now.